W.H. Auden, “Musée des Beaux Arts”

Musée des Beaux Arts
W.H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Comment:

Assigned this poem, I produced a paper full of billowy nonsense I hesitate to term “writing.” That was 15 years ago, and thankfully lost forever. A few years later, I had a few insights as to what details might matter. I still didn’t understand what this poem was about.

I

In the museum hang the paintings of the Masters. They are attempts to depict an aspect of their time, with one slight problem: Is it actually possible to convey one’s everyday experience to people of another time? Strictly speaking, it is not possible; one recreates the past by looking to what is presently at hand; it is the fact we are human, that we react certain ways, which art uses to imitate life. At some point, art may even communicate with us.

Before communication, however, one must create a compelling imitation. We viewers have to want to engage imaginatively. Something pointed, something potentially meaningful, stands prior to the composition as a whole. To see the world, ironically enough, is to react to it first:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along…

Strolling through a museum, “just walking dully along,” treats the window into suffering as those eating in the painting treat those who suffer. The Masters, in never being wrong about suffering, in understanding its human position, understand the limits of their art.

To be sure, they understand the possibilities also. The poem as a whole provokes our moral indignation, as we are outraged to hear of those who do not feel pity or compassion! How dare they be blind to what is happening right in front of them! To be so blind is to ignore our pain, our promise, evident in scenes of Old Testament prophets fervently praying, or shepherds near holy and wise men, all gathering around a manger:

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood…

We may dismiss the skating children as ignorant, or turn on them as worshippers of a lesser god. It is far less likely we will remember the words of the child miraculously born, “Let the children come to me.”

II

It would be wrong to say that using suffering this way is a trick of some sort, that it is only done to make an ordinary work of art look profound. It is true the world cruelly goes on while cruelty occurs, as the poem and the paintings both attest. But what of it? We, as observers, correspond with those of the paintings who are almost entirely oblivious. If they weep and gnash teeth while a saint dies, does that make the painting more moral? If we feel morally superior because we recognize someone suffering in an image, are we better people?

The first stanza contains a regression. It started with those who were “eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” Then, the next group blind to suffering and hope were “children who did not specially want it to happen, skating on a pond at the edge of the wood.” It ends with a horse and dog going on with their lives, while a martyr is tortured to death:

They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

The first stanza moves from adults to children to animals. Silently, it implies that recognition of suffering has some meaning, for rationality falls away as the suffering becomes more pronounced and stays ignored. However, whether suffering, God becoming man, or torture and death can cause life to pause is another issue. The paintings tell the story that it is difficult to even expect art to pause.

III

Surely, a chain of observers must result in some reaction, somewhere. Those witnessing the ghastly scene of Icarus’ death in Brueghel’s The Fall of Icarus “quite leisurely” turn away. The ploughman and the sailors are busy about their work, and if Icarus had been less full of hubris, he too would be sailing or plowing, not trying to fly:

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Breughel’s painting is cruel, but cruel to his world, not Icarus. Art itself is hubris in a world where the truth has been completely revealed and everyone knows their place. The indifference of those witnessing pain in the first stanza has been replaced by contempt in the second.

The poet makes this substitution quietly, as the paintings did. Not all the Masters may have understood the human position of suffering. If they did, they may have understood it different ways. Their attempt at meaning, what unites them in the poem’s narrative thread, indicates the centrality of merely shining light on an event: “the sun shone as it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green water.” These painters provoked through the theme of suffering, and in at least one case, asserted something about their own time, simply to get us to see the event. Without the provocation, without the contention, we would not bother seeing the more fundamental truth. Prior to that, we would neither think about the type of people a given age has, nor wonder how a myth endures as it changes.

The coldness of our narrator is itself a provocation. He has been “quite leisurely” turning away from painting after painting, taking in bare facts. A splash, a cry, sunlight, green water, an expensive, delicate, ship. He also has somewhere to go and will move calmly on. We’re not more moral for looking at suffering in paintings. Maybe a bit more clever for seeing how it functions in bringing us to respond to art. This much is true: if we can take in the details, reconstruct the story, we too can narrate. What that means, though, is up to us, alone.